In his Chapter on The Observance of Lent, Benedict ‘urges the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure.’ (Rule of St Benedict 49:2) Today’s Gospel can help us to do this. If we include the part omitted between the other two, this Gospel deals with the three pious practices considered most important to the Jews of Jesus’ day: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. For each of these, Jesus outlines precautions that might be taken to prevent them from degenerating into some kind of hypocritical show. Each of these acts, these good works, are meant to be in service of God — and I would remind that what we have entered is ‘the School of the Lord’s Service’. (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:45) If what we do is done to enhance our own reputation, it is not done in service of God; it is self-serving. “So,” says Jesus, “when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win people’s admiration.” (Matthew 6:2) “When you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them.” (Matthew 6:5) “When you fast, do not put on the gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull long faces to let people know they are fasting.” (Matthew 6:16) Jesus is not against others knowing what we’re doing. For, a little earlier in this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “In the same way, your light must shine in the sight of men, so that seeing your good works, they give praise to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) We are meant to give good example, but our example is meant to generate praise of God, not praise of ourselves. If what we do usurps the praise due to God, what good is that? And the good works that we do cease to be good, and so are worthy of nothing from God.
Jesus remedy for this form of abuse is secrecy: “When you gives alms, your left hand must not know what your right hand is doing; your almsgiving must be secret;” “When you pray, go into your private room and shut the door;” “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face so that no one will know that you are fasting.” (Matthew 6:4, 6, 17) In each of these practices, the demand is for complete sincerity; we are to do them for no other reason than that it pleases God and him alone. Each of them ought to be the concern of the one who is fasting/praying/giving alms and God, and no one else. When we fast or pray or give alms, we must have our eyes fixed on God alone (Psalm 123:2), without a sideways glance to see who else is watching, to see whom else we can impress. So, for instance, when we pray, we should pray as if we are in our private room where no one else can see. If we do this, we will keep our manner of prayer ‘most pure.’ And so for the other two. If we learn how to do this, if we learn how to find our way to that place where God ‘is in secret’ (Matthew 6:6), just him and us, then it won’t matter if others see. For we, with our eyes fixed on God alone, will be unaware of anyone else, and our motives will not be compromised, and we will have found the freedom to pray even ‘standing up in the assembly,’ or anywhere else, without fear of its becoming a hypocritical act.
On our monastic journey, we, too, have our own pious practices; we, too, are to come into God’s Kingdom ‘by doing good deeds.’ (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:22) “This we can do in a fitting manner,” says Benedict, “by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.” (Rule of St Benedict 49:4) Each of these can be subverted and turned into a similar kind of hypocrisy. What we are given here in today’s Gospel — do not trumpet about what you are doing, but just do it quietly and unobtrusively; do not stand up before others so as to call attention to yourself, but just be there as simply and as honestly as you can; do not make it painfully obvious to others what you are on about, but just act normally without needing any kind of attention-getting device — is a way of keeping our way of life most pure, a way of hiding even in plain sight, a way of entering that private space where only we and God are, a way of just being ourselves before God, so that what we do is done, then, only in service of our Lord. (C.f.: Luke 18:10-14) Then, all those that may see will be edified by our good example, and perhaps even be moved to praise God by doing as we are doing.
By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO